Nashua, N.H. — The Rev. Jesse Jackson was addressing a full house of students and faculty at Daniel Webster College when ''that question'' again surfaced: What did the Rev. Mr. Jackson think, he was asked, about the drumbeat of charges that he was anti-Semitic, and that he had used anti-Semitic language?
Mr. Jackson, obviously troubled, said:
''I regret the charges have been made. I am not going to allow this matter to remain a matter of media fascination. I will take this matter to the (Jewish) people and to the leadership. If we do that, we will have a broad-based dialogue about this matter once and for all. . . .''
Two days later, after repeatedly ducking the charges, after wrestling with his own conscience, after watching tensions rise between the black and Jewish communities, Jackson made his decision.
Suddenly changing his campaign schedule, he appeared at a synagogue, Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester, N.H. He told an audience:
''I was shocked and astonished that this ethnic characterization made in a private conversation apparently was overheard by a reporter.''
He continued: ''I am dismayed that a subject so small has become so large that it threatens relationships long in the making, and those relationships must be protected.''
But Jackson strongly denied that he holds anti-Semitic views. He said the words he had used, ''Hymie'' (for Jews) and ''Hymietown'' (for New York City), had been offhand, private remarks not meant to offend.
The Jackson comments about Jews were losing him support even before he admitted making them. The Washington Post had originally reported the story. Later, Richard Cohen, a Post columnist, wrote:
''Of the truth of this allegation there should be no doubt. Two Washington Post reporters heard him use the terms on two occasions.''
But the clash between Jackson and certain Jewish activists predates anything in the Post. When Jackson held a rally at the Washington Convention Center to announce his presidential campaign, his speech was disrupted by a Jewish heckler. Jewish protesters have marched outside his Boston headquarters. And at least one advertisement has been run in the New York Times sponsored by a group called Jews Against Jackson.
Jackson says the antagonism toward him came about because of a 1979 Mideast trip during which he expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause. He has been a strong supporter of negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Yasser Arafat.
Jackson has also expressed support for Israel's right to exist. It is his argument that the United States, despite its ties to Israel, cannot afford to alienate the many Arab nations of the Mideast.
After his appearance at the temple, Jackson was interviewed by CBS-TV reporter Diane Sawyer: ''A lot of times you can use words that are meant to be mean if there is an air of hostility.'' This was not such a reference, he said. ''It was not meant to be . . . derogatory. It was private and colloquial, even though it was wrong.''
Asked why he waited so long to clear the record, he said: ''I had to wrestle . . . my inner and my outer self. These (are) changes we go through, and there's one part of ourself that's essentially a quest to be popular. . . . There's another self that's political that says be expedient and win. There's another self that says do what's right and let the chips fall where they may. And that was my final judgment.''
Before this controversy, Jackson was considered to be doing well in New Hampshire, even though he entered the race late, had little money, and had only a rag-tag campaign organization. Jackson's clearing-of-the-air comes so close to Tuesday's primary that it will certainly be fresh in voters' thoughts as they cast their ballots. The whole controversy is expected to reduce his vote.
Jackson hopes the breach with Jews can be healed. He says: ''I get the impression that some Jews did not realize how much we were hurting. And maybe some of us did not realize how much they were hurting. So let's stop, let's have a cease-fire, and share pain, and share solutions, and collectively . . . move to higher ground.''